Vanity Has Been My Pillar

Original Article: STRAITS TIMES, OCT 20, 2019

CANCER SURVIVOR TAY SHAN MIN.PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAY SHAN MIN, ONG WEE KIAT

Ms Tay Shan Min says beauty and make-up kept her going in her fight against cancer
The first thing she says is: “Sorry, you’ll have to speak louder – my hearing has been impaired from chemo.”
Hand of friendship outstretched, Ms Tay Shan Min offers a toothy grin shellacked in bright red lipstick. Mascara-coated lashes fan out dramatically against her closely cropped hair.
The 53-year-old is nonchalant, startlingly so, when talking about her experience with cancer. You would never guess she has been battling Stage 3 nasopharyngeal carcinoma since 2013.
The rare head and neck cancer affects the upper part of the throat behind the nose and can spread to the brain, ears and jaw.
Nicknamed Cantonese Cancer, it usually affects adults aged between 35 and 55 and is more common among the Chinese. If detected early, it is curable.
Ms Tay first realised something was amiss in 2013, when she noticed her phlegm was dark red – and so thick, it turned her toilet bowl pink. When it persisted, she went for a check-up and was passed from polyclinic to specialist.

On Boxing Day that year, she received her results and was told it was a malignant cancer.
“It was a shock to my system; it was so surreal. My boyfriend was also shocked. Afterwards, he was walking in front of me in a daze.
“I screamed at him to stop it and come back to hold my hand,” she adds with a chuckle.
The former corporate communications executive was unemployed at the time, having taken a break from her job in media relations since 2009.
Burnt out from work, she had been experiencing constant urinary tract infections (UTI) – a sign of low immunity.
After a whirlwind month of medical scans, she was diagnosed with Stage 3 nasopharyngeal cancer in January 2014.

After a whirlwind month of medical scans, Ms Tay Shan Min was diagnosed with Stage 3 nasopharyngeal cancer in January 2014. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE KIAT
The tumour was located in her right ear passage, with two more on either side of her neck. She was prescribed seven weeks of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which burned her throat and left ulcers on her tongue and gums.
Today, faint scars still linger on her neck. Her saliva glands produce less saliva because of the burn.
That was not the end of it. Though her cancer went into remission from 2014 to 2016, it returned in July 2016. Doctors found that the tumour had gone to one of her lungs.

More radiotherapy sessions ensued over the next two years, as well as a vaccine trial.
But last November, the cancer was found again – this time in her liver.
Despite the emotional ups and downs, Ms Tay has managed to maintain a positive outlook.

Despite the emotional ups and downs, Ms Tay has managed to maintain a positive outlook.
She jokes about being a Bond Girl, introducing liquid platinum into her blood for the vaccine trial, which sets off metal detectors at airports. For exercise, she stretches her legs with Pokemon Go.
Ms Tay partly credits her Buddhist religion for her easy-going demeanour and cool outlook. But it was beauty and make-up that truly kept her going.
“My vanity has always been my pillar,” she says earnestly, recalling how uncles in the hospital would call her “drama” when they saw her sporting a full face of make-up for her chemo sessions.
The radiotherapy made her skin darker and gave her pronounced fine lines and pigmentation.
“I felt so self-conscious – I would slather on sunblock and skinwhitening skincare before and after my radiotherapy sessions,” says the former employee of Estee Lauder Companies.
The hair loss from chemotherapy did not bother her as much. “Hair will grow back. It was the cleaning up after that was more emotional.”
She has even helped spread some of her positivity and love of beauty to fellow cancer patients.
In 2014, she was invited to volunteer with the Singapore Cancer Society’s Look Good Feel Better programme, which supports women undergoing chemo or radiotherapy via workshops on cosmetics techniques.
Helping out with make-up application, Ms Tay noticed how the women who attended the workshops were “completely down”.
“They had lost their hair and their skin – my gosh, they had stopped taking care (of themselves). It was going grey, they were breaking out; they looked unhappy.”
She stopped volunteering in 2017 because of her frequent medical therapies, but is grateful for such events that help women with cancer rediscover their self-worth.
Looking good can help you feel empowered, she says. “It’s so important because on top of the trauma you’re going through – where you’re facing mortality – you’re losing your looks. It’s a double whammy. A lot of women give up.”
In the end, if you take away career, what do you want in life? You want it to be beautiful and happy – and why can’t you have that even in bad health?

Last month, she was the guest speaker at a corporate social responsibility event organised by Amorepacific Singapore. The third annual “makeup your Life” programme, which supports women fighting cancer in Singapore, hosted 50 patients from the National Cancer Centre Singapore at skincare and make-up workshops.
Ms Tay also gave tutorials on how to style headscarves to cope with hair loss.
Today, her cancer is in remission. She is still unemployed as her condition is too unstable for her to look for work.
She lives off her Central Provident Fund and investment payouts and trades in the stock market.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” she says with a shrug. “Looking back, when I was healthy, I was so distracted with work and ambition, working till 3am. I was tired all the time – it was ruining my life and I didn’t even know it.
“In the end, if you take away career, what do you want in life? You want it to be beautiful and happy – and why can’t you have that even in bad health?
“Cancer made me focused and since life is uncertain for me, I just pursue the things I like. Now I live day by day.”

MS TAY SHAN MIN’S BEAUTY TIPS

SKINCARE

Medical therapies have made her skin dull, dehydrated with fine lines, and prone to itch and irritation.
She steers clear of products with fragrance or alcohol, which can trigger eczema and skin flush. These include many whitening products, which have some form of AHA (alpha hydroxy acid) or BHA (beta hydroxy acid) to slough off dead skin cells.
She never leaves home without sunblock and recommends Shiseido Wetforce Sunblock, Sensitive Skin formula, SPF 50/PA+++ for its sweat-proof, non-comedogenic properties.
“Since I’ve had cancer, to correct sallowness, uneven tone and more visible uneven texture from discolouration, I use a pinker-hued make-up primer over my sunblock on good skin days.”

To combat dehydrated skin, she recommends Sulwhasoo Herblinic Restorative Ampoules. “This traditional Chinese medicine-based formulation works for my occasional pimples and tendency to break into light eczema. I like that it is herbal- based and without steroids.”

For a body moisturiser, she uses the ceramide Suu Balm developed with National Skin Centre. “The rich minty body moisturiser is great for allergic breakouts, irritations and mozzie bites. I keep one on hand when out.”

MAKE-UP

Eyebrow embroidery has saved her half the time in her routine, says Ms Tay, who lost her eyebrows completely after three rounds of chemotherapy. “Brow make-up doesn’t sit or look as natural as when there is fuzz.”
She sought her doctor’s approval first as cancer patients recovering from chemo can be prone to infections. She recommends an arched brow look for those who have lost their brow hairs.
For those wanting the same look without the needling, she recommends Etude House Tint My Brows Gel, which offers a soft, natural and less permanent result.
A flattering red lipstick has become essential to draw attention away from tired eyes. She likes the Hera Rouge Holic Shine for its high pigmentation and moisturising texture.

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